In the first six months of 2018, almost 5,000 lawsuits were filed against websites for ADA violations. The law firm Seyfarth Shaw predicts that there will be nearly 10,000 lawsuits by the end of the year, which is a 30 percent increase from 2017. Plaintiffs claim that the targeted websites are not usable for people with vision or hearing problems, and advocates say that it's just as important for websites to be accessible as it is for brick-and-mortar stores. With shopping, job postings, hotel reservations, and other activities becoming more and more popular online, people with disabilities need to have equal access to the web.
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines outline the requirements websites must abide by to be deemed accessible to the disabled. These guidelines were first published in 2008, but have been updated several times since. The current standard is WCAG 2.1, which includes 60+ guidelines. The Federal government did not create these guidelines, but they are generally accepted as the standard for accessible sites.
Accessible websites must include features that allow online visitors with disabilities to access information, with the help of supporting technology. Additionally, sites must be equipped with a user agent, such as a screen-reading software, to convert words to audio. Other accessibility features include descriptions of videos to accommodate people with hearing loss. Similarly, all interactive functions on a website need to be navigable with keyboard commands, so visitors unable to use a computer mouse can access every feature on the site.
The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990, and it has been the topic of thousands of lawsuits against shops, hotels, restaurants, and other companies. The first lawsuit over a website violating ADA guidelines was filed in 2009.
The Section 508 updates to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 require equal access to government websites. These updates went into effect in January 2018. For private websites, though, there is a more gray area. Title II of the ADA forbids disability discrimination in state and local government services and programs. Title III forbids disability discrimination in the enjoyment of goods, services, facilities, schools, and other public accommodations. Many people agree that these regulations should also apply to websites.
In 2010, the Department of Justice began drafting website regulations to meet ADA goals. However, in December 2017, as part of the Trump administration's goal to roll back federal regulations, they announced an end to the drafting of the regulations. This means that plaintiffs are more easily able to demand large payouts by citing Title II or Title III violations, and the business owners don't get a chance to fix their websites first.
After the Justice Department announced this rollback, 103 members of Congress wrote a letter to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. They asked him to continue with the website regulations as a lack of regulations will lead to too many lawsuits. Lawyers who defend these ADA lawsuits agree that the decision to stop adopting regulations is likely the reason for the recent surge in lawsuits.
Consequences for Violating the Guidelines
Companies that have faced lawsuits for ADA website violations include Hooters, Domino's Pizza, Winn-Dixie, Harvard, MIT, and many others. The plaintiffs are usually successful with these lawsuits. In 2017, H&R Block had to update their website and apps after losing their case. The National Museum of Crime and Punishment in Washington, D.C. had to fix their website, too. Hulu reached a settlement with the American Council of the Blind to make their website and app more accessible for blind users.
The lawsuit against Winn-Dixie was the first case to go to full federal trial. The plaintiff argued that people with visual disabilities could not use the supermarket's website with a screen reader, and the judge agreed. Although the company did not have to pay damages, the judge required them to set aside money to update their website. Thousands of smaller businesses have faced similar lawsuits.
California has had more lawsuits than any other state, which is probably because they have a minimum amount for damages of $4,000. Suing is more lucrative with this mandatory minimum, so plaintiffs are more likely to file a lawsuit. However, business owners and defense lawyers complain that plaintiffs can demand massive payouts without first giving business owners the chance to make their sites accessible.
The cost for business owners to make their website meet these standards can range from several thousand dollars to several million. It's more difficult for highly interactive sites and sites with lots of videos and images. Business owners will lose more money on a lawsuit than on updating their website, though, so they should fix their site before they're sued. Having an accessible site will attract more customers with disabilities as well, so it's a worthwhile change to make.